Creator of the Week: Felipe Smith

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Get to know the comic book writer and artist behind All-New Ghost Rider

By Andrea Merodeadora

Felipe Smith is a rarity in the comic world. Not just because he’s a Latino who started his career in manga (which is rare enough) but because honestly, his style is refreshingly weird as hell. Born in Ohio but raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Felipe graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and with a professional career that’s taken him from Los Angeles to Tokyo, the Jamaican-Argentinian artist and writer has always had an unique vision and highly personal style. His stories, from the autobiographical MBQ to Marvel’s All-New Ghost Rider, all combine a sort of ‘slice of life’ narrative full of character insight and incisive commentary alongside over-the-top action and fantasy elements- all without missing a beat. In an interview with Comics Alliance, Felipe explains that, because his work “wasn’t geared towards kids or a core fan base of a certain genre” he initially saw nothing but rejections from publishers.

So Smith turned to manga, attracted by the creative freedom of the genre, and decided to teach himself Japanese so he’d be able to enter the market. In the span of a couple years, all while working restaurant jobs, drawing, and learning a whole new language, Smith won second place in a manga contest, which allowed him to publish his three-volume semi-autobiographical comic MBQ. The story follows an aspiring LA illustrator who works minimum wage and struggles under the weight of college debt while trying to get published in an industry that’s not very welcoming to originality. Comixology’s review of MBQ takes an in-depth look into how it shines for its realism, its uniqueness and its great narrative pacing.

Even though, as Smith himself puts it, “at the time people were saying that [he] didn’t know what [he] was talking about — that the kind of work that [he] did was not manga, and it didn’t look like anything they considered manga from Japan — ” the buzz surrounding MBQ reached a publishing agent who put Felipe in touch with the Japanese publishing company Kodansha.

Felipe moved to Tokyo, where he wrote, translated, illustrated, colored and shaded his three-volumes graphic novel Peepo Choo with the aid of only one assistant. He then went on to become the first Western creator to have his manga published in Japan, in Japanese, before getting an English edition. That’s no small feat for anyone, but for an Afro-Latino creator at the beginning of his career to break this barrier with a comic like Peepo Choo was a milestone never seen before.

Peepo Choo is no ordinary manga either. Felipe’s work broke stylistic, narrative and even thematic boundaries. Like MQBPeepo Choo has a self-referential element of sorts in its protagonist, Milton, a Black American kid in love with manga and animé. The story revolves around the conflict between manga and comics, as well as a juxtaposition between Yakuza and Chicago gangs. All these elements eventually form an often unseen critique of the Western fetishization of Japanese culture, and its resulting “weeaboo” fanbases.

Smith returned to the United States to work as a character designer for Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 2012. In his time back, however, he was called upon by Marvel to spearhead their new Ghost Rider concept. He was wary at first, as he “didn’t think [a lot of the stuff that had been done with the Ghost Rider in the past] was the best out there”- but Marvel only had two conditions for his story: the new Ghost Rider had to be under thirty, and he had to drive a car instead of a bike.

So Felipe introduced Robbie Reyes, a Mexican-American high schooler from Los Angeles who was raising his younger brother Gabe on his own. Like his previous works, Smith wanted to ground the story in reality. Talking with The Marvel Report, he explained that he developed Robbie based on his own experiences and what made the most sense in the cultural setting of LA. He knew that growing up in a Latin American country and speaking Spanish would allow him to write a more believable Latinx character, and “since the largest Latino demographic in LA is Mexican, it made more than perfect sense for Robbie Reyes to be Mexican-American.”

All-New Ghost Rider took the Ghost Rider into a completely new direction (and, let’s be real, made the mantle cool again). Smith moved the anti-hero to the other end of the country, reinvented the inner workings of his powers, and even got him on the cover of Lowrider Magazine. Felipe’s run was praised for its compelling characters, its portrayal of disability, its excellent story, and for Trad Moore’s bold art style.

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All-New Ghost Rider’s run wasn’t as long as it deserved to be, but Marvel and Smith agreed on him coming back for another book, a crossover event titled Ghost Racers. There, with Argentinian illustrator Juan Gedeon taking lead on the art and Smith on the story, Robbie Reyes got to meet Johnny Blaze, one of Felipe’s favorite characters as a teenager. Soon after, less than two years after his print-debut, Robbie Reyes was adapted for the small screen in season 4 of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (portrayed by Gabriel Luna).

Now, after two collaborative projects for Marvel Comics, Smith goes back to what he does best, and what he does best is whatever he wants. “That’s why I got to writing in the first place”, he said at Long Beach Comic Con, explaining that he “realized that the kinda stories that [he] wanted to draw were not being written by anybody.”

Felipe is currently developing an action/ horror graphic novel about zombie cops (or cop zombies, It’s really confusing.) Set in LA, Death Metal Zombie Cop follows two police officers navigating a corrupt institution, and an increasingly supernatural string of crimes.

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After a successful kickstarter, DMZC should be available for pre-order soon. Until then, we recommend picking up his previous works, and following him on twitter for future updates.

Editor: Ricardo Biramontes

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